A Future for Iraq's Insurgents?

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Rumsfeld tours the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad

Even as America reels from the aftershocks of the detainee abuse scandal the nature of a post-occupation Iraq is taking shape. With less than seven weeks to go before the June 30th handoff, its becoming clear that at least some of the insurgents will have a significant role in the new Iraq. First at Fallujah, and now at negotiations with followers Moqtada Sadr in Najaf, U.S. officials appear to have recognized that it may be difficult to prevail militarily against the insurgents without inflicting casualties and damage that would turn the civilian population even more decisively against the occupation.

Even the most pro-U.S. sections of the Iraqi population had been imploring the Coalition to avoid a frontal military assault. The cost of tactical victory could be strategic defeat. Instead, U.S. commanders decided to pursue what they called "an Iraqi solution." The Marines withdrew from their forward positions around Fallujah and handed security control to a newly-minted Iraqi unit led by some of Saddam's former generals, who were given the freedom to recruit their own troops. The result is a force that directly recruited some of the very same insurgents that had battled the Marines, and was welcomed by residents as a symbol of what they saw as their "victory" over the U.S. Of course, the arrangement required the scaling down of U.S. objectives — there's no sign of the men responsible for the killing and dismembering four U.S. defense contractors being handed over, and although the U.S. has demanded that the new force eject foreign fighters from the town, the commanders of the new unit swear there aren't any foreign fighters in Fallujah.

If there's any irony in the idea of the U.S. military paying salaries to insurgents as an incentive to get them to stop fighting, that doesn't appear to be stopping the military from considering a similar plan to co-opt Sadrists into security forces for the Shiite cities. Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey of the 1st Armored Division has proposed creating a Najaf Brigade to police the city, which would initially comprise 1,800 men drawn from militias loyal to local tribal chiefs and to the various Shiite political parties, and could include members of Moqtada Sadr's Mehdi militia. Dempsey proposed similar arrangements for recruiting some of Sadr's men in five other cities. The fact that U.S. military commanders are now talking openly about absorbing insurgent elements that the Bush administration had only weeks earlier vowed to destroy may indicate a shift in Iraq toward more realistic goals.

While the Fallujah deal is holding, there is no specific agreement at Najaf. Sadr appears to be holding out despite mounting pressure from within the Shiite clerical establishment for him to avoid a military confrontation in any of the shrine cities, and Paul Bremer appears to be insisting that Sadr be arrested before June 30 to face charges over the murder of a rival cleric a year ago. Local Shiite leaders had been working on a deal in which Sadr would agree to disband his militia in exchange for an understanding that he would be held only after the transfer of sovereignty. The Abu Ghraib abuse scandal has made it more difficult than ever for Iraqi politicians to support his arrest by the Americans, but Bremer is not inclined to let him off the hook.

But Sadr is playing a three-way game, using his confrontation with the Americans to challenge his political rivals in the Shiite community. Even as negotiations continue, his forces are clashing with U.S. troops at Karbala, Kufa and Baghdad. The U.S. objective may be to weaken the Mehdi militia and raise the pressure on Moqtada, but the firebrand cleric appears to be using that pressure to his own ends — particularly to challenge his more moderate rivals, chief among them Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sadr has long rejected what he sees as Sistani's quiescence toward the occupation, and he cleverly judged that Sistani's silence in recent days despite the Abu Ghraib scandal and U.S. military action that damaged a mosque in the shrine city of Karbala may be damaging Sistani's standing among Shiites. Sadr — whose widely respected father had challenged Sistani's "quietist" moderation under Saddam's regime, before its agents murdered the elder Sadr — has offered to disband his militia if ordered to do so by the Grand Ayatollah. Much as Sistani would like nothing more than to see Sadr's rag-tag militia strike its tent and disappear, he can't afford to be too closely identified with the Coalition.

Sadr appears to have judged that he has time on his side, given the U.S. deadline pressure, and is holding out for more favorable terms, knowing the U.S. needs to restore the peace and that the most important consideration is to avoid alienating moderate Shiites. But Sadr has to guard his own flanks in the Shiite community in the face not only of clerical exasperation with his provocative stance but also rival political-military factions. Chief among them is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose leaders sit on the IGC but whose 10,000-man Badr Brigade militia was trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guard. SCIRI has begun to challenge Sadr's men for control of the streets of Najaf. The mounting tension among rival Shiite elements there may have the look of a potential civil war, but it might just as easily be the opening salvoes of an election campaign in which Sadr and SCIRI, among others, hope to be competing for the same Shiite votes.

The solutions emerging on the ground are obviously at odds with some of the rhetorical statements from Washington about the nature and fate of the insurgents, but they proceed from an immediate objective of restoring calm and a recognition that the insurgents, both Sunni and Shiite, may be more deeply rooted in their community than Bush administration officials had been comfortable acknowledging. And it was the administration, not the commanders on the ground, that made the June 30 handover a priority above all others. The requirements of making that deadline may increasingly be shaping the battlefield outcomes in Iraq.